‘A personal look at 20 of their best moments’
London (Brussels Morning) The recent death of Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts is the end of an era – perhaps even the end of their era. Although the band brought in Steve Jordan – drummer and co-writer on guitarist Keith Richards’ solo projects for more than thirty years – to deputise on the final dates of a tour they’ve been attempting to complete ever since COVID happened, it was predicated on the basis of Watts’ eventual return to the ranks.
Watts’ passing was a hammer blow to longterm fans, myself included. There have been many excellently-penned and heartfelt tributes from friends, admirers, bandmates and even critics. The latter tributes often contained lists of ‘essential’ Rolling Stones tracks. But they often seemed like samey repeats of what the writers thought should be in the essentials, dutifully trotted out, rather than what they as individuals might have had a passion for.
Although much less frequently than before, it is still sometimes claimed that rock performers are past their best as writers after their 20s and 30s. But this receding view, common currency 40 years ago, is based on the highly subjective standpoint of those still making these claims and their incredibly narrow and dated take on the function of these artists. Simply writing in an article that this view isn’t ageist doesn’t mean it’s not actually ageist. If you think rock music and its practitioners should only have the same function as was often assumed in the genre’s earliest days – youthful rebellion – and later works are disqualified without any further consideration, that’s clearly ageism as well as oddly timewarped.
For example, I can’t imagine that anyone who thrills to The Who’s 1973 magnum opus ‘Quadrophenia’ would fail to be impressed by their recent resurgence. Obviously, newer material by older acts is not as familiar to some who last paid real attention to an artist decades ago; the current stuff isn’t blasted out ubiquitously in bars, in Scorsese movie soundtracks or as TV themes and the general background to our lives for years on end.
There’s also the tiresome canonistic approach to music – who ‘The Greats’ are and what their ‘Greatest Tracks’ seemingly should be. Individual subjectivity – which should be paramount – is somehow minimised. It’s often bound up with a tiresome conservatism that we might have once parodied our grandparents for: “It’s not like in my day!”
I believe those are some of the reasons why the Rolling Stones’ later work (by which I mean the last half century!) is often undervalued. They also took a bashing during the punk era, for reasons which aren’t entirely clear; their ongoing decadent, disreputable and louche conduct was surely the template for punk rock’s origins and their music was clearly still far from being designed by a committee of record industry promo people. It’s difficult to understand what the bone of contention here was. That they’d already been around for over a decade seems the most likely issue. And that’s a trifling amount of time considering many punk era acts have now been treading the boards for 45 years themselves.
So, in tribute to Watts, I’ve attempted to write a list of personal favourites and avoid simply rehashing songs that I might have felt compelled to include. At first, I began by writing down songs I assumed would be near the top of the list and that I’ve always loved: ‘Jumping Jack Flash’, ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, ‘Midnight Rambler’ and others. But I felt I was falling into the same trap as the other pieces I’d read.
To get around this, I started again and sat with a very large pile of physical Stones vinyl albums and CDs and wrote down my favourites from each, placing every song above or below the ones I’d already written down. This circumvented the compulsion to include ‘The Greats’ and also the temptation to favour songs in which Charlie Watts was particularly good (Charlie was always good).
I then simply took the Top 20 and resisted the temptation for any horse trading or tinkering. For instance, I was itching to include my favourite Keith-sung track, “Thru and Thru”, an unlikely collision (in its first act anyway) between Tom Waits and Prince’s “Sometimes It Snows In April”, which was languishing at No 23. But I resisted. My only slight cheat was I couldn’t decide between the order for songs 21 and 20, so I scored them the same, to make this a Top 21. These two have long been thematically linked in my mind, in any case. Also, the coincidental juxtaposition of the Moroccan-linked Numbers 12 and 13 was a bonus.
But my final Top Twenty favourites surprised me. As well as finding that some of the songs I assumed would be near the top were actually just outside this list, there were several others that made it that I’d sometimes forgotten how much I like. In many cases, I found that I had opted for live versions that I thought outstripped the original recording. This was often my experience in the ten times I was lucky enough to see them live (although this figure is paltry compared to my friend Tony Harris’ total of 38!) However, there are plenty of very high profile Stones tracks in here, but by using this method, at least I know they’ve earned their place.
= 20. Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing in the Shadow? (Single, 1966)
The musical equivalent of a hazardously drunken night out; the lyrics are like a shouty late night argument in a side street, a couple hurling insults at each other over half-eaten kebabs, their words made indistinct by the traffic-like buzzing guitars, rumbling bass and blaring brass in place of car horns. Topped with a discordant, feedback-spiked, echoing ending. Garage Rock. But clearly from a two-car garage.
= 20. Oh No, Not You Again (A Bigger Bang. 2005)
A late middle-aged companion piece to ‘Have You Seen Your Mother…’; I like to imagine it’s the same couple decades later, still at odds. This absurdly hooky riproarer finds Mick Jagger on fine, sneery, pottymouthed form, with Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood’s hard-edged, slightly overmoded guitars driving the points home. Charlie Watts’ ‘Boof! Boof!’ snare is at its most highly-tuned, eye-blinkingly loud and brilliantly biscuit-tinny since 1981’s similarly wonderful ‘Neighbours’.
19. When The Whip Comes Down (Live Licks, 2004)
Jagger packs a lot into one of several NYC-flavoured songs on 1978’s ‘Some Girls’, their first album to feature the full throttle Richards/Wood guitar combination throughout: Gay LA man moves to the Big Apple to earn an honest crust as a streetsweeper, with a side hustle in male prostitution and bondage. As you do. Best sampled via this ferocious live version.
18. Get Off My Cloud (Single, 1965)
Based around a rotating ‘Hang On Sloopy’/’Louie Louie’ dance groove emulating the perpetual motion of stardom, this features a lyrical pushback to the constant demands their celebrity had brought. Watts’ iconic rat-a-tat drum figure, consciously or otherwise, mimics the door-banging irritation of people relentlessly grabbing at them for time and attention.
17. All Down The Line (Exile On Main Street, 1972)
Many ‘Exile…’ pieces only work well in the context of the album, but not this banger, dominated by the stinging, sinuous lead guitar work of Mick Taylor. There’s also a barnstorming live rendition recorded in Texas the same year (and belatedly given an official audio release in 2017) which finds Taylor’s lead lines swelling further to fill the space occupied here by the gospel-tinged backing vocals. The effect is correspondingly ecstatic.
16. The Lantern (Their Satanic Majesties’ Request, 1967)
I reject the oft-advanced narrative that the Stones lost their way when attempting to answer the Beatles’ ‘Sgt Pepper…’. And even if they did, here on ‘The Lantern’, it’s a gorgeously spooky, somewhere-in-the-woods, kind of lost. Not so much a terrified ‘W-where the hell are we?’ as a wonder-filled ‘Wow, never been here before!’ The mantra-like, harmonic whine of each opening lyric line – like speeding cars whizzing past – and the desultory, distant horns, set the disorientated tone brilliantly. If this is being lost, I’m throwing away my compass right now.
15. Silver Train (Goats Head Soup, 1973)
This locomotory rocker provides another perfect vehicle for some of Mick Taylor’s most characteristically fluid guitar. It’s powered further by steam whistle bursts of harmonica and interspersed with one of the catchiest refrains in the group’s entire catalogue: “And I did not know her name, and I did not know her name!” I don’t doubt that, Sir Mick.
14. She’s So Cold (Live) (Hampton Coliseum Live 1981, 2012)
Released decades after a concert movie it was originally part of, this is one of many live Stones recordings that far outstrips its studio template. The whole group is on blistering form, pushed on by the passionate yet precise metronomic velocity of Watts. It’s worth remembering that the Stones were regularly dismissed as corporate and over-the-hill by this point; supplemented on piano and keys by original Stone Ian Stewart (demoted to roadie by manager Andrew Loog Oldham for not sharing their bohemian look) and Ronnie Wood’s former Faces comrade Ian McLagan respectively, it’s probably not many objective people’s idea of corporate rock. Indeed, this scorching music must be among the least-corporate ever played in stadiums.
13. We Love You (Single, 1967)
Further evidence for the defence of the Stones’ brief psychedelic phase. ‘We Love You’ is controlled chaos, dominated by Brian Jones’ swirling, eastern-inflected, horn-like contributions on mellotron, suggesting an influence absorbed during that year’s post-drug bust escape to Morocco; that tangle with the British establishment is also alluded to in the lyrics. Celebrated session pianist Nicky Hopkins’ playing is equal parts barrelhouse thump and hallucinatory reverie. A certain Lennon and McCartney provide high-keyed harmonies – and countercultural solidarity.
12. Continental Drift (Steel Wheels, 1989)
Decades later, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of Brian Jones’ death, the Stones returned to Morocco to collaborate with the Master Musicians of Joujouka, whom Jones had first recorded in the 60s.The dream-like ambience of this piece is toughened up by the typically authoritative entry of Watts at 1”28’. Many artists talked a good game in the 80s about creating a hybrid between western rock music and World Music. The trance-like closing section of ‘Continental Drift’, with the Master Musicians in full flow, suggests the Stones more fully realised this vision. They weren’t just adding some pseudo-ethnic window dressing as a bolt-on to otherwise standard pop/rock, as some other artists did. Pure as silver.
11. Undercover Of The Night (Undercover, 1983)
This captures in sound the then-stressed relationship between Jagger and Richards – the frontman’s freewheeling mash up of words features dollops of William Burroughs and a meditation on corrupt political regimes, counterpointed by angular and angry bursts of his oppo’s trademark rifferama. All is knitted together by Ronnie Wood’s nagging funk rhythms and the imperious you-know-who on the drum stool. Creative tension as highly successful art. There’s some ambiguity about whether the officially-released version features Bill Wyman or guest artist Robbie Shakespeare on bass; the latter certainly appears elsewhere on the parent album. If it is Shakespeare, then he was heavily influenced by Wyman, not least the latter’s stunning contributions to the earlier ‘Miss You’ (Let’s face it, it’s Wyman).
10. Respectable (Live) (No Security, 1998)
Sardonic 1978 belter given an especially thumping rendition in Amsterdam Arena twenty years later, its subject matter of the group’s belated acceptability to polite society more relevant than ever.
9. If You Really Want To Be My Friend (It’s Only Rock’n’Roll, 1974)
It’s almost redundant to talk about underrated Stones albums, because after “Exile On Main Street” in 1972, they all are. This song is from one such undercelebrated platter, somehow excluded from the reductive narrative of the UK’s monthly rock magazines. This plaintive ballad features Philly soul act Blue Magic on perfectly-realised backing vocals, giving a nice touch of period authenticity.
8. Out Of Control (Bridges To Babylon, 1997)
Stylistically, this later-period gem is a step back to the early 1970s, but not necessarily the Stones’ early 1970s. There’s a hint of both The Doors’ ‘Riders On The Storm’ and The Temptations’ aptly-titled ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’ in the moody ambience, counterpointed with bursts of unmistakeably Stones-y aggro. Keith Richards has sometimes spoken of Jagger’s harmonica playing as the essence of his partner’s musical personality; here, his blistering contribution on mouth harp sounds as bereft and desperate as the song’s central character. Check out the shared moment of delight between Jagger and Richards from 5’45” in the live version later included on 2016’s “Havana Moon.”
7. Paint It Black (Live) (Live Licks, 2004)
The Stones should never have been criticised for playing stadiums. Instead, we should celebrate the fact that music that is this dark-hearted, emotionally complex and desperate can attract enough people to fill such places. Here, their mid-60s hit has a new life and a vastness breathed into it on tour, three decades later. It’s arguably the best representation of this great piece; the crowd’s initial shouts of recognition, falling to a hush as the mournful opening guitar phrase echoes around the venue, before Watts’ thumping tom work ignites proceedings. Jagger spits the words over Wood’s treated guitar, respectfully echoing the sitar Jones played on the original, as Richards machetes through the closing run. They were often unfairly derided as going through the motions for the money by this stage. If this is indeed a band going through the motions, it shouldn’t be seen as a pejorative term. And they didn’t need the money.
6. Moonlight Mile (Sticky Fingers, 1971)
A rare Keith-less moment, with many attributing its spectral delicacy to his absence. And though Mick Taylor’s guitar contributions and Jagger’s acoustic motif were reportedly based on Richards’ demo work, it certainly bears similarities to the other blissed-out Jagger/Taylor moment, ‘Winter’, two years later. So, although not unique in the Stones body of work, this is an ethereal masterpiece, swept along by a sumptuous yet fragile string arrangement to an intriguingly uncertain resolution.
5. Miss You (Some Girls, 1978)
Often influenced by the greats of soul music, it was only natural that the Stones would also absorb disco, the style’s danceable sub-genre – especially if you hung out in as many clubs as they did in the late 70s. It’s certainly a bluesy take on the dance music of the day, and still unmistakeably the Rolling Stones. Bill Wyman’s pulsating and much-copied bass line remains one of his finest moments.
4. Brown Sugar (Sticky Fingers, 1971)
This strutting, swaggering blues-rock powerhouse finds the Taylor-era five piece augmented by sixth Stone Ian Stewart on piano and near-Stone (and Richards’ best friend and birthday sharer) Bobby Keys, playing his most wonderfully paradigmatic saxophone break. Glorious.
3. You Got Me Rocking (Voodoo Lounge, 1994)
This latterday live warhorse includes many noteworthy elements: a typically committed performance from Charlie of course, but also two of Richards’ best ever riffs in one song: the chiming opening figure and a second classic, stabbing away menacingly behind the verses, like one of those industrial guillotines that keeps coming down at unpredictable times, endangering your fingers. It has a great lyric from an oddly underrated lyricist. Mick is not hot under the collar because of some, ahem, ‘hot chick’ as might be presupposed from the apparently cliched title. Rather, he would have us believe, the lady in question has him “rocking” in the sense that she has shattered his confidence; he compares himself to a “hooker, losin’ her looks”, a “writer (that) can’t write another book” and a surgeon “till he got the shakes”. So then, a tongue-in-cheek midlife crisis song by the world’s most confident entity? Perhaps (although it does fit the theme of the same year’s excellent “New Faces”). Yet another noteworthy element is the far from small matter of some of Ronnie Wood’s greatest guitar work being contained herein; this is arguably the very essence and apex of Ron-ness, not just with the Stones but in his whole career. It’s surely up there with ‘Miss Judy’s Farm’, ‘Stay With Me’, ‘Sweet Lady Mary’ and ‘Debris’, especially the serpentine, squally second guitar break. Better still, unlike the above Faces classics and the many other great Stones tracks that Wood features on, this song has not yet been cheapened, curated, canonised, homogenised, neutered and patronised by tedious librarianism. Enjoy it illicitly while you still can; after all, it may only be an issue or two away from one of those “10 Hidden Stones Classics!” boxouts in a magazine feature.
2. Gimme Shelter (Let It Bleed, 1969)
Talking of live staples, this has been giving concertgoers the chills with its spidery, spooky tendrils for over half a century. And though many of those versions have been very effective, there’s something especially creepy and unrepeatable about this original version; Richards’ snaky guitar lines, Jagger’s jarring harmonica punctuations and Merry Clayton’s shrieking, spine-tingling vocal break. Don’t listen to it alone on Halloween.
1. Memory Motel (Black And Blue, 1976)
Played live rarely at first, Memory Motel has featured on all Rolling Stones tours in the last thirty years as it has gradually grown in recognition as one of their most affecting works. Like Moonlight Mile, it features an untypical group configuration: none of the Stones regular guitarists are featured. Taylor had recently left. Richards is on electric piano only. Wood’s role is restricted to backing vocals. Guitars here are handled by two of the people Ronnie eventually beat to the job: Wayne Perkins on acoustic and Harvey Mandel playing some extremely effective, melancholy lead lines. It’s also one of the few times the Glimmer Twins alternate on lead vocals: as Jagger considers the lyrics’ female principal, alternately sentimental and dismissive, Keith acts as a Jiminy Cricket-like conscience, interjecting with gentle, admonishing reminders that ‘she’s got a mind of her own – and she uses it well.’ This musical playlet of dislocation, disconnection and general road weariness manifests into perhaps their most poignant and moving song. And the crisp yet wistful entry of Charlie Watts at 1’:10” sums up exactly why their late drummer will be missed so much.